Aberrant Behavior: On Alex Toth

By Howard ChaykinJuly 20, 2011

Aberrant Behavior: On Alex Toth

Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth by Bruce Canwell and Dean Mullaney

I AM AND HAVE BEEN for many years an avid admirer of the work of Alex Toth. I knew him — not all that well, but well enough to realize at a certain point that avoiding contact with Alex Toth was a positive and healthy lifestyle choice.

Toth was a difficult man. He was the Citizen Kane of difficult men. In a career that lasted over half a century, he left behind a trail of angry, hurt, confused and disappointed friends and acquaintances, acolytes and worshipers. I know a lot of that crowd, and after the grumbling, bitching and moaning, all justified, about what a miserable fuck Alex was, to a man (they’re mostly male), the next words are always something like, “But that shot of the boots in Battle Flag…” or “Oh my god, Thunderjet…” or…

You get the picture. Alex Toth was admired and worshiped for his brilliant work, despite a personality so unpleasant editors would not work with him. They knew that what he delivered would be superior to anyone else’s pages, but they’d pass simply to avoid the mishegas of having to put up with his aberrant behavior and abusive temperament. Which brings us to the title of this book, Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth, the first of three oversized hardcover volumes paying tribute to his brilliant work. This volume covers the forties and fifties, when the artist was in his late teens to mid twenties. To say that Toth found his métier early is to grossly understate the case. We are witnessing a truly prodigious talent in the first wave of, yes, unqualified genius.

I called Toth the Citizen Kane of difficulty, and his body of work has much in common with Welles’. Like Welles, Toth used all the available tropes of his chosen medium — the common language of the comic strip and the comic book — and executed them in a way so profoundly different from what preceded it that the work’s impact on all that followed is immeasurable.

And yet, a motion picture studio executive, with neither a grounding in film history nor more than a casual interest in what preceded his own time, can be shown a sparkling print of Citizen Kane in a screening room, and be bored out of his mind because every single new idea Welles brought to the screen back in 1941 has been borrowed and misused a million times the the last seventy years of film production. The same is unfortunately true of the work of Alex Toth. While most fans of comics were ignoring his astonishing output, professional cartoonists from the late 1940s right up to this very morning have been absorbing the lessons of craft from his romances, war stories, and period pieces. Without exaggeration, a day doesn’t go by in my studio when I don’t look at some piece of comic art by Toth. Now, thanks to this book, and the two volumes to follow, I’ll have a one-stop resource.

In Genius, Isolated, as in many such books, Mullaney and Canwell make an attempt to draw parallels between Toth’s work and his ethnic background, his family and upbringing, and solitary childhood. I’m frequently dubious about such connections, and that’s the case here. Maybe there is a direct connection to be made between his only-child boyhood and his adult personality, but what the hell do I know — that’s a therapist’s job.

That said, the editors have a deep understanding of the craft of comics, and they intelligently convey their grasp of this frequently misunderstood, diminished and bastardized medium. As in a previous work of theirs, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles — Sickles, not so coincidentally, was the single greatest influence on the artwork of Alex Toth — they’ve done their homework, unearthing the best examples of Toth’s handiwork from this period, as well as finding a few gems that haven’t been seen in years.

All this, of course, begs the question of what this astonishing graphic artist — for that’s exactly what Toth was, a graphic designer, deeply influenced by the industrial arts, working in the comics’ medium — must have thought when putting this supreme and subtle mastery of shape, form, and craft into the service of such more often than not abysmal narrative dreck.

To convey the irony and contradiction of the place that Alex Toth commands in popular culture in general and comics in particular, we might step away from the Orson Welles-Citizen Kane metaphor, and go instead to Phil Spector and the three-minute miracles of early rock ‘n’ roll that are his artistic and creative legacy. No one — at least no one I know — would ever mistake the lyrics of Spector’s best known material for anything but teenaged pap and drivel, while his orchestration, presentation, and arrangement of this junky doggerel never fails to elevate it to the level of unequivocal genius. I still get a goose pimpling shudder of delight at the first notes of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and The Crystals’s “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and it’s that same reflexive joy I experience at the sight of Alex Toth’s execution of the primitive, barely pulpy scripts that make up so huge a percentage of the work every cartoonist is asked to delineate.

Those of us who make our living in comics spend much of our professional lives working on scripts that, to be kind, aren’t very well made. And we do the best we can with this material. What separates the rest of us from Alex Toth is that, like Spector, Toth was able to take lousy texts and bring them to visual life with a level of craft, detachment, stunning graphic excellence and yes, genius that raised his pages to the comics’s equivalent of those 45 A sides.

And let’s face it — time and history has demonstrated that Phil Spector was far from the easiest guy in the world to get along with, either.

In Toth’s case, the awed reaction of professionals has found its perfect diametric opposite in the frequent indifference of readers. The majority of comic book aficionados over the last sixty years have not recognized that the work of Alex Toth has been consistently transcendent almost since his arrival on the scene. And if it has been difficult to convince well informed enthusiasts, how then does one convey to a casual observer Toth’s brilliance, the genuine detached and cool genius of his craft?

Gil Kane, a cartoonist and contemporary of Toth’s, was one of those aforementioned admirers, who was able, to his credit, to separate his personal feelings about the man — Toth and Kane hated each other’s guts, apparently from the day they met — and continue to worship the work despite that lifelong animus. He said, and I quote, “Toth has never had the popular regard of [Jack] Kirby, [Frank] Frazetta, of [Wallace] Wood, because the bravura styles of these men are infinitely more appealing to comic book readers than the complex subtleties and abstractions of Toth’s style.”

My fear is that indifferent readers will see the pages reprinted in this book as the sort of panels that the sniffily contemptuous Roy Lichtenstein would have regarded as found art and plundered for his smug, obvious and thematically vacant statements about popular culture.

A pity, because what Mullaney and Canwell have done here is nothing short of wonderful. They’ve presented a well chosen selection of the first full decade of Toth’s career, arguably his most creative period, in a beautifully designed volume that conveys the artist’s evolution — an astonishingly brief transition that happened in barely five years — from talented beginner to absolute master.


Note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that I am included in the acknowledgments in this book. Sometime before publication, Dean Mullaney, a colleague for over 30 years, asked my opinion on the dates of one of the pieces. I offered an educated guess, and that was that.

LARB Contributor

Howard Chaykin is a prolific comic book writer and artist; last year, for instance, he published some 20 books, including several Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men titles.


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